cover image Grace and an English Heart

Grace and an English Heart

Jessica Mitford. Dutton Books, $18.95 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-525-24672-5

In this slender biography, Mitford ( The American Way of Death , etc.) sifts the legend of Grace Darling, daughter of a lighthouse keeper, who became a Victorian celebrity at age 22 when she and her father rescued nine survivors from a luxury steamer shipwrecked off the northern coast of England in 1838. Grace's deed, popularized by the local press and later picked up by newspapers all over Britain, found a special niche in the early Victorians' sentimental hearts. She was seen as a perfect exemplar of the Victorian virtues of piety, courage, chastity, modesty, obedience; moreover, she died young (at age 26, of flu). Never mind that her cautious father, an experienced seaman, apparently waited for low tide and then took the safest route to reach the survivors. Commemorative pottery, girls' magazines, songs, poems and biographies kept her legend alive, but in Mitford's wry telling, she was a ``strangely incurious,'' ordinary woman who shrank from her instant fame. (Mar.)